Reworking the Methods Course

January 1st, 2014 § 2 comments § permalink

Well, okay, the typewriters are a bit of an old-fashioned juxtaposition here (and yes, no cigs), but this image is one of many that echo this past semester’s workshop methods course, Hist 297: History Colloquium. Chaos, collaboration, some good communication, an occasional mess, and some real productivity.

Preface…

It was also a first run of a revised methods course for our department. As I’ve previously noted, we’ve just taken a one semester course, required of all History majors, and made it a two-semester sequence.  The one-semester course was ambitious, as most of them are. And we’d decided that it would be more productive to allow the students to work through this curriculum at a more balanced pace. At the same time, having two semesters would also provide us the room for further development of that curriculum and its implementation. A win for all.

The idea has been to leave the the focus for the fall to historiography and literature reviews–a “history colloquium”–with faculty choosing a broad theme for their own courses, while still emphasizing the same fundamental skills in the process. The spring semester course is then be turned over to student research on self-designed projects in primary sources, still in a seminar setting.

One piece of the story…  TaipingCivilWar.org

My colloquium this past fall focused thematically on China’s devastating 19th century Taiping Civil War (1851-1864). One aim of the course was to help students acquire a “digital literacy,” a departmental goal. I incorporated multiple components in this regard, including exercises re: digital identity and digital portfolios (particularly in relation to UMW’s own path-breaking Domain of One’s Own project — “one of the very best things in ed-tech right now” as Audrey Watters has noted.) And simpler, self-intro assignments utilizing digital tools.

The mainstay, however, was my students’ own collaboration in creating an online resource on the Taiping Civil War itself — namely a website entitled TaipingCivilWar.org.

Taiping Civil War  A Record of the Civil War through Primary Sources - Google Chrome 12282013 35730 PM

While I’ve had students create their own blogs, compose for course discussion sites, even edit gifs and tweet for courses before, this is the first time I’ve worked with a class that has created its very own website as a public resource. The process has highlighted some interesting issues:

“Digital Literacy”… I’ve left this one in quotes because it’s often a term associated with an “outcome” to be met, and with a definition that’s not always clear–and sometimes it’s indeed better left that way for the sake of flexibility. Still, we might ask, what are our ambitions in this category? In what ways can or should we incorporate the so-called “digital” to best serve our curriculum? Our students?

A devil’s advocate might say that we’re pouring old wine into new bottles or playing with widgets (figuratively as well as literally.) So, we might ask: what’s pedagogically innovative that’s being added amid instruction in methods and the introduction of digital resources? What’s fermenting here?

How might we constructively, amid the development of a digitally inflected curriculum, change the way we approach a methods course?

Critical Thinking… Ever a challenge, always the aim? How does this ambition relate to our use of digital resources in a history course? The website assignment here offers a case study. In many ways, the project invited students to take an inside-out view of a work of secondary scholarship, in this case, that of Jonathan Spence’s God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan (1996)Reading this book as the first assigned text for the class, students then worked extensively with Franz Michael’s epic 3-volume collection of translated Chinese primary sources, The Taiping Rebellion: History and Documents (1971), cited frequently in Spence’s work.

Sifting through the primary sources, and working with excerpts they chose, students worked together in small groups to compose an online map and timeline of the civil war. Another group also composed an annotated bibliography of secondary works utilizing Zotero and interviewed another scholar on the Taiping topic (more below.)

All students also composed blog posts in which they examined Spence’s own use of primary sources from Franz Michael’s collection in his composition of prose for his study. In doing so, they were gaining their own perspective on historical research. Dissecting the way a scholar uses primary sources in all their intricacies and ambiguities, in constructing his own argument from the ground up, students gained a critical understanding of the steps–and occasional educated leaps–a historian makes.

As the students composed their own narratives in timelines and maps, too, they also avoided what can often seem a passive consumption of a secondary text.  Not only did they read Jonathan Spence’s book, but also almost literally took it apart and reconfigured it. They read it from the inside out as they were simultaneously engaged in their own forms of composition–plotting a selection of sources in space and time–from the same primary texts. Online.

Authorship… 

Indeed, in composing their timelines and maps from an overlapping collection of primary sources, students also engaged in a parallel authorship. And, while admittedly less ambitious an undertaking, it was still a very real one. For in fact their website is a text that is openly available and penned with the students’ names, offered for a public audience of other students of the subject.

A nice touch was that students also had the simultaneous opportunity to interview an author of another work on the Taiping conflict, Dr. Tobie Meyer-Fong (Department of History, The Johns Hopkins University), whose recent work What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China (2013), was another monograph we read for the course. A third group of students worked with UMW’s Speaking Center to prepare for their interview with Dr. Meyer-Fong, then conducted the interview and transcribed it for the website. It now accompanies the annotated bibliography on the topic of the Taiping Civil War that students created and have shared via a Zotero group they also created.

The students’ conversation with Tobie Meyer-Fong was wonderfully productive as it offered an account not only of the joys but also the practical challenges of research shared by a scholar fresh from finishing her own excellent study. Next semester, the same students who engaged in this conversation will move to the second half of our methods seminar. They’ll be jumping into the challenges of defining their own research projects and exploring primary sources, of pulling meaning and analysis out of a complex mix in the archive. Hopefully this interview will make a for a good springboard as they head that way…

Collaboration…

Finally, if there’s one thing the website project brought to the curriculum beyond a prescribed digital infusion it’s the creative engagement that comes through collaborative work. For me, this aspect was one of the joys of the course.

Our greatest co-author in this respect was none other than Ryan Brazell, Instructional Technology Specialist at UMW’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, who not only shared his expertise in the design and management of the digital frames for our website this past fall, but also shared his great talent for instruction in the classroom itself. Many people can do tech, many people can communicate, both not many people can truly communicate tech. Ryan can do both, teaching undergrads brilliantly, and do it with a sense of humor & timing that rivals the classic comedians.

Ryan has also composed an excellent post on the design of the website for the course. I highly recommend it. A tweet Ryan shares at the end, a student quote from one of his workshop visits, made my day… I’d point any instructor there amid fears, early in a course, that digital elements are turning into their own jungle gym for students to climb over, or get stuck on permanently. Once the students have made it through the early learning curve (steep though it may seem), the payoff often arrives.

The website project also invited, well, yes, demanded a significant level of student collaboration, as all group projects do. And, as often the case with group work, the results were slightly mixed as there were some who didn’t quite pull their weight (for diverse reasons… )

The incorporation of collaborative assignments seems nevertheless valuable, particularly when one considers a future after the degree is earned. Part of the value of the web project, then, lay in helping students build experience in working in groups, in defining project goals and strategies through shared communication, and in negotiating divisions of labor.

It’s a skill that many professionals (cough, professors?) could probably work on too. And a piece of the pedagogy I’m going to keep developing for next time around. I tried to balance the inevitable challenges of mixed student commitment with differentiated systems of evaluation — i.e., a separate group grade and individual grade, with each reflecting effort toward the website assignment and online work. I’m still looking for better ways to evaluate, guide, and encourage students to build their own skills in group work, however.

Do you have a good strategy or lesson plan for helping students improve their approaches to collaboration or group work? Suggestions, thoughts, and feedback very much welcome on this score, as for any and all of the above…

 

Image credits:

– “Young men and women working on writing for publications at Camp Well-Met, 1948″
National Jewish Welfare Board Records; Photographer: Heinz H. Weissenstein
Center for Jewish History NYC // Flickr Commons – LINK 

– Fu Xinian, ed., Zhongguo meishu quanji, Huihua bian 4: Liang Song huihua, xia (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1988), pl. 150, p. 204.  Collection of the Freer Gallery of Art. Via link.

 

 

 

Chinese History Sources Project: Update #2

March 4th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

I’m writing to note that the Chinese history sources site is still under construction. It’s currently resting in dry dock as we contemplate possible shifts to its original design, including new possibilities for its systems of organization of data (for the site and via Zotero) and also its breadth of coverage. Further updates will follow as it moves forward.

Suggestions for content and/or organization from those who might find a site for undergraduates, particularly those students who haven’t yet developed to intermediate or advanced Chinese language ability, helpful in their study of Chinese history are welcome. Feel free to add them in comments below.

The original posts on the topic can be found here and here.

Digital Fluency? One Department’s Conversation…

May 11th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

UMW’s Faculty Academy returns this week with its ever-creative exchanges on the topic of scholarly and curricular endeavors that utilize digital tools. I’ll be participating in a discussion panel that Jeff McClurken (who is devoting himself to no less than four panels and discussions, as rumor has it…) has generously organized.

Titled “Digital Fluency, Online Communication, History and American Studies: One Department’s Engagement with Social Media and Pedagogy,” our panel will dig into issues related to the meaning of “digital fluency,” its relevance to curriculum in our own fields and courses, and the ways in which its scope encompasses broader issues including assessment, departmental outreach, and more…

A list of the links I’ll be highlighting in my own talk:

wordpress (also via umwblogs)
zotero
FSEM: Toys as History course (Blogging assignment page)
delicious
Chinese History Sources website (under construction)
Chinese History Sources zotero page (under construction)

And the questions? A starting point may be the simple question of what is “digital fluency”? Is the term useful? What are the ambitions that it – or an alternate vision – should represent or encompass?

Update to Sources Project

November 4th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

We’re continuing work on the development of a Sources resource for undergraduate students of Chinese history. Much of our technical focus has been upon Zotero as a tool for the project – indeed, as the project is developing, Zotero is emerging as an equal partner to the website planned. In fact, with its dual features of accessibility and flexibility,  it may emerge as the centerpiece itself.

In the meantime, several developments along the way:

In terms of content, we’ve decided to expand the categories of temporal coverage. Originally, this site was going to focus on just the late imperial and 20th century periods. I’ve added a full set of dynastic categories to the mix, though, to allow for expansion by students working on individual research projects or courses devoted to early periods in coming semesters.

On the technical side of things, Zotero has been a very useful tool with regular updates and excellent support. We did run into one glitch an early stage in which somehow (cause still unclear) our sources collection seemed to be deleted. Technically, our project is a subcollection within the broader History and American Studies – University of Mary Washington group at Zotero. While this seemed rather a dilemma at its occurrence, all the citations that had been uploaded had in fact remained in the broader group, but their system of files and organization had been lost.

Our solution was to reconstruct the subcollection and its folders. Fortunately, the outline of our organization was saved at this same website and on an office computer that wasn’t set to automatically sync with our Zotero files. We then  moved the cites, still sitting in the general Zotero library for the UMW group, back into the folders.  (For more, see my posting and Dan Stillman’s very helpful reply here at Zotero Forums.)

Part of our speed in fixing this mishap was that it happened at an early stage in the project. It will be nice, however, to see a group backup function developed for the Zotero system.  In the meantime, to play things safe, I’m also maintaining a parallel library within my own personal collections (rather than just the groups collection) in my own Zotero setup.

More to come as the project develops…

Sources in Chinese History: A Course and Site for Undergrads

August 29th, 2009 § 2 comments § permalink

One of my main pedagogical projects this fall is the development of a sources curriculum for undergraduate students with an interest in modern Chinese history. At UMW, we require all history majors to undertake a senior thesis (independent research, 30-40 pages), which is often quite a challenge for students, particularly those pursuing research on global topics. One of my ongoing aims has been to establish a sources website that would be geared toward our undergraduates who enroll for the thesis project in my own field– i.e., students with a clear interest in Chinese history, who have completed background courses on the topic, but who do not necessarily have Chinese language ability. 1

I’ve been developing the first edition of this project in collaboration with UMW history major Joe Calpin, who is embarking upon an independent study on “Sources in Modern Chinese History” under my guidance this fall.  The curriculum here is intended to provide a critical familiarity with major genres of sources as well as useful reference works and tools, journals in the field, and online resources.

One of the central projects for this independent study will also be the design of a sources website. Though very much a working project, the idea is that this site would transcend this particular independent study and, ideally, our own campus, in serving as a reference site for undergrads elsewhere. Our intended audience is students who may be working on their own research projects but who may not quite have the linguistic training they need to dive directly into Chinese-language sources. In many ways, the website is being conceptualized as a stepping stone to more advanced online resources in Chinese history such as the UCSD Modern Chinese History Research Site and the Classical Historiography for Chinese History site compiled by Benjamin Elman.

To further this project — and create a resource of its own — I’ve established a library for the course at Zotero Groups (see the group library for “History 491” at our “History and American Studies: Univ. of Mary Washington” Zotero group site located here or at the link on the right side of this blog.) I’ve outlined a set of sources categories in sub-folders there (still tweaking and expanding… further suggestions welcome.) As Joe Calpin and I work on the independent study this fall, we’ll be adding to this sources group, building up a selective bibliography of relevant works, collections, and web-links. This will serve as the bibliographic reference, as currently imagined, for a partner website to be designed and composed by Joe, 2  that will offer a more detailed description and critical introduction to sources in Chinese history…

Above is an introduction to the project we’ve undertaken.  I’ll be using this site as a place for hashing out ideas for the project’s development and providing updates of its progress.  Suggestions are always welcome – and gratefully appreciated…

Questions for the crowd:

1. The categories listed below are the ones that currently appear in our Zotero file for the site, a list to which I’m still actively adding. I’d welcome suggestions for further categories to add, divisions to consider, and more…

2. Are there other topics or components for the site that folks (faculty, undergraduate students) out there in Chinese history would find helpful?

3. I’ll be sending out a call for nominations for primary source collections, among other types of titles and resources, to be listed in the group… suggestions ahead of that call are always welcome.

Categories currently listed for our Zotero bibliography:

That list is building out of a more haphazard brainstorm of genres I’m looking to cover within the frame that’s being constructed. To share my rough notes:

  • key journals (e.g. Journal of Asian Studies, Late Imperial China, Modern China, China Quarterly, Harvard Journal of Asian Studies)
  • english-language historiog and research collections (e.g. Cambridge History of China; Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization Series)
  • translated compendia of sources (e.g. Taiping volumes…)
  • key reference websites (UCSD; Elman; et al)
  • key online search engines
  • key online archives (textual, visual, etc.)
  • online listservs (H-Net; Asian Studies WWW Monitor; others? )
  • key English-language reference works (biography; titles; etc.)
  • advice for other students re: basic reference shelf (English language and Chinese language)

Footnotes:

  1. My work here is much in the spirit of that of my colleague in Soviet and Russian history at UMW, Steven Harris, who has created a very useful website on primary sources in that field to help his own students in their research.
  2. And with the ever-generous help of the folks at UMW’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT) who have established UMWBlogs as a realm for digital projects.

Visual Culture in the History Classroom

May 20th, 2008 § 3 comments § permalink

Is a picture truly worth a thousand words? How does an image (or an opening line) transcend the cliché? A more important question for the History classroom may be just the opposite — how do we find enough to say? Often the image seems to be taken as a simple illustration or, in an even more problematic fashion, as a pure fact on a page.

These concerns have inspired an extended unit on China’s revolutionary posters for one of my upper division seminars as well as a presentation at the recent UMW Faculty Academy. (Many thanks to all for the insightful comments offered at the session.) The seminar course is a broad one that explores the notion of cultural history in the context of the history of the People’s Republic of China. In addition to reading texts related to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), particularly selections from Evans and Donald’s Picturing Power(1999), and exploring the oral accounts offered in the documentary Morning Sun (Longbow Group, 2003), our class also engages in a direct analysis of revolutionary posters. Drawing on the excellent collection presented online by scholars Stefan Landsberger and Marien van der Heijden, our working group is set with a task that offers several basic goals:

  • – introduce the value of a close read of an image…
  • – explore the complexities of meaning an image presents…
  • – work towards a shared construction of analysis…

The emphasis here lies upon a collective exploration of the dynamic of the brainstorm and the value of free-thought insight. The aim is to make the nuts and bolts of early constructions of analysis visible… literally.

With this latter aim in mind, I incorporated a new digital tool (wonderfully introduced by Bryan Alexander at a recent ELI workshop) called VoiceThread. As an open, web-based tool that allows individuals to add voice and text to a selection of images, VoiceThread proves quite useful in encouraging attention to a deeper level of detail within the frame. It also invites analysis across frames, as a device that allows for an assembly of images in a moving sequence. Commentary, observation, and narration all flow around the images as the images are moved in lines of juxtaposition and association, just as set forth by one of our working groups:

http://voicethread.com/share/51061/

As a class plan, our workshop offered three starter VoiceThreads for students working in groups of 4-5 people. Each VoiceThread set forth a first image, chosen by myself, with participants invited to find and add their own, creating that very procession of images amidst their own commentary. In one case, students jumped from an image of domestic scene in a revolutionary 1954 poster to images from genres that seemed, at first, quite distant:

http://voicethread.com/share/52807/

While the commentary was left to the images themselves for these two latter scenes, their assembly presents a reading that invites exploration not only of the unfamiliar (in the form of the Chinese images, Chairman Mao as domestic god?), but also a return gaze back at that which is better known… A very good start.

A question still follows – how best to bring the analysis to the next level?

Further historical contextualization of the images is one necessary task, including detail (where available) on their composers, production and dissemination. A second step would also be to incorporate further readings re: visual culture as a follow-up that helps to weave the process of analysis more closely with analytical commentary and methodological insight. The exploration of image and text (and back to image) invokes everything from the classic work of John Berger to the recent analysis of historical photographs, text, and vision offered by filmmaker Errol Morris in his blog for the New York Times.

And the third step? Suggestions welcome…

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